Catching Hundley this winter might be worthwhile O's gamble

On Baseball

November 08, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles will need a lot of outside help to get back on a par with the defending world champion New York Yankees -- and there is plenty to be found in this year's talent-rich free-agent market -- but the key move of the off-season doesn't have to be a free-agent acquisition.

The club could solve a long-standing problem by making a deal for displaced New York Mets catcher Todd Hundley, who is all but certain to be traded sometime this winter.

Hundley became expendable when the Mets signed Mike Piazza to a seven-year, $91 million deal. He is a big-time offensive threat who probably could be had for pitcher Juan Guzman, but there is a catch.

The veteran catcher is coming off serious shoulder surgery, so his defensive ability and overall durability will be in question until he proves again that he can catch on a regular basis.

It's a gamble, but the upside is worth exploring. Hundley, if healthy, could solve the Orioles' defensive problems behind the plate and beef up the offensive lineup. The downside: If he isn't healthy, he could end up being the most expensive pinch hitter/reserve first baseman in the business, at $11 million for the final two years of his Mets contract.

It's worth the risk, especially if the Orioles lose first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to free agency. Chris Hoiles still is under contract for next season and could play some first base if Hundley is able to catch full time. If Hoiles (or Lenny Webster) has to catch, Hundley could share first base with promising Calvin Pickering.

The Orioles would be better off signing Palmeiro or replacing him with free agent Mo Vaughn, but there is no guarantee that either one of them will be playing in Baltimore next year.

Hundley wouldn't come cheap, particularly if the Orioles have to give up Guzman, but there is a chance that the veteran right-hander will demand a trade, anyway. He has that right because he was traded to the Orioles in the middle of a multi-year contract.

Dealing Guzman for Hundley makes sense because the Orioles are in a position to acquire a free-agent pitcher to replace him. Their options behind the plate are much more limited, because there are only a handful of free-agent catchers available, none with the upside potential that Hundley would bring to Baltimore.

Vaughn's overture

Vaughn knows how the free-agent game is played. He watched the way the Boston Red Sox front office dealt with former teammate Roger Clemens and has been careful to keep his foot in the door -- even though it sometimes appears that the club would like to slam it in his face.

When Vaughn told reporters last week that he would be willing to take less to stay in Boston, it was a savvy negotiating ploy that put the club in an uncomfortable position.

Now, if the Red Sox fail to re-sign him, they will not be able to portray him as a greedy, disloyal guy who bolted Boston for better money. They will look instead like a team that was not really serious about bringing him back in the first place, which won't sit well with fans.

It wouldn't be a complete surprise if that was the plan all along. Red Sox GM Dan Duquette didn't apologize for the decision to let Clemens go and replace him with Pedro Martinez. He may well be hoping to do the same thing with Vaughn and Bernie Williams.

Stay tuned. This could get interesting.

Mo info

If Vaughn leaves Boston, he might be willing to sign for a shorter term with the Orioles -- that is, if Palmeiro moves on and the Orioles decide to replace him from outside the organization.

Vaughn told The Sun last spring that he would love the opportunity to play on the same infield with Cal Ripken. And, presumably, he wouldn't mind hitting in left-handed-hitter-friendly Camden Yards.

It wouldn't take a stretch of the imagination to envision Vaughn taking advantage of the cozy right-field dimensions to markedly increase his home run total and make a run at baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967.

Good luck, Kevin

The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, are handcuffed by the ill-advised deal they made to get rid of Piazza in June. They've got about $16 million in annual payroll wrapped up in Bobby Bonilla and Gary Sheffield, two players they would love to unload on some unsuspecting fringe contender.

They apparently have a chance to deal Bonilla to the Mets, but it seems unlikely that new GM Kevin Malone is going to be able to sell someone on Sheffield as long as there are 130-plus cheaper players available on the free-agent market.

Maybe things will change after the top players have been signed, but it appears that the Dodgers will open spring training with the potential for friction between Sheffield and Raul Mondesi, both of whom feel they should play regularly in right field.

If Malone could unload Sheffield, he'd have Mondesi playing in position and money to sign center fielder Bernie Williams. Which brings us to a favorite expression of Dodgers executive Tom Lasorda: "Yeah, and if a bullfrog had wings, it could fly."

Rumor mill

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